On Apologies

I once worked with a person who said ‘women apologize for existing. I take a more abrasive approach’. I didn’t see that person achieve much in the long-run, for anybody but themselves.

Apologies are an undervalued form of emotional labour. Far from showing weakness, I see them as a form of strength.

‘Sorry’ shows accountability: I am responsible for my actions. ‘Sorry’ shows power and self-confidence: I might have an impact on you. ‘Sorry’ shows restraint: I am not so desperate that I need to maximise every single opportunity, and I will hold back if the situation calls for it.  

‘Sorry’ does more. Any situation carries its own consequences in itself. This is the wisdom of the Yi Jing. The world is an evolving pattern, with a logic of its own. It is the mechanistic determinism of Vendetta, the tragic machine that unfolds inevitably towards catastrophe.  

Yet we could escape this logic, if only we were able to detach from the chain of cause and consequence. ‘You caused harm, I must punish’ is a full-stop to freedom. ‘You caused harm, I forgive’ offers an alternative.

Our direct power over the future is limited: freewill is an illusion. Yet we may change our perception of the past. Forgiveness and repentance offer an alternative to tragic causality. And it all begins with an apology.

Reflecting on my practice – Straight talking

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

A New Yorker cartoon popped up in my Facebook feed the other day, and resonated with a situation I have often faced – particularly when working around (straight white male) entrepreneurs.

It’s a form of communication that I like to call ‘straight talking’. It struggles to listen, and likes to make a point. At its worst, it sees every conversation as an argument to win. At best, it subtly polarizes discourses. All this passed off as assertive honesty.

Straight talkers are arrogant. Dig a little, and you find the following reasoning. Their time is too valuable to think hard about their words – or even learn to do so. Yet their views deserve attention, right now, in their unfiltered state. ‘I’m being honest’ only means, I won’t carry the load of emotional labor.

I like to take more care in the way that I speak or write. What I am seeing, or thinking, may be wrong, partial, incorrect. In their raw form, my thoughts may be somewhat astringent. I need to mollify them before sharing. That other person’s mental balance may be more important than I realise. I shouldn’t disturb their focus and well-being with my unmediated stupidity.  

Yet there is a dark side to this level of care. Homophobia taught me diplomacy. In spite of whatever status or confidence I might have gained, I still brace for the risk of aggression. Unless it’s a major issue, push a little, and I let go. Many members of minority groups do the same – if a straight talker pushes, they receive silence and a nod. Confirming their illusion of self-importance.

Without mindful handling, idea meritocracies built on the best intentions degenerate into survival of the loudest. Good people leave, teams fall apart. Resisting demands calling it out, making explicit requests for silent members to intervene, and setting protocols assigning turns to each person in a group. In live and virtual settings. And all this takes effort.

Not to mention, there is a dangerous temptation for strong egos. Acting like a dick is a good way to find yourself the smartest person in the room. Anyone with half a brain is drifting off already, planning their next move.

So, if you’ve ever been the smartest person in the room – or slack thread – just wonder – could it be that you silenced everyone else, or chased them away?